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Activists Want Boys Out of Men's Jail

June 20, 2003|Jean Guccione and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

About 50 demonstrators held a noisy protest Thursday outside the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, demanding that county authorities immediately end the practice of incarcerating minors within the adult facility.

"What we are doing to our youth at Men's Central Jail is nothing short of a sin," chaplain Javier Stauring, co-director of detention ministry for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, told the crowd.

"We cannot afford to continue to throw these lives away."

The protest, organized by a local group called the Youth Justice Coalition, comes amid increasing criticism by clergy, defense attorneys and human rights groups about the 44-bed unit within the men's jail that houses minors being tried as adults.

Demonstrators, many of them wearing orange "County Jail" T-shirts, included half a dozen speakers who either had spent time in the juvenile jail or had friends or relatives incarcerated there.

"Minors are being sent to the jail not because they were violent, but because they were discipline problems," said Victor Flores, 16, recalling how a onetime roommate of his at Juvenile Hall was transferred to the jail after being found with a $10 bag of marijuana.

Authorities have long insisted that the juvenile unit within the jail houses only the worst of the worst of the 150 or so minors facing charges as adults in Los Angeles County at any given time.

Those sent to the jail, officials said, are transferred because they have threatened or injured other juveniles or staff members at facilities run by the county Probation Department.

But critics of the practice counter that Los Angeles County sends far more juveniles to the adult jail than any other county in California.

State Department of Corrections statistics show that last year, Los Angeles County had an average of 44 minors a month in the jail, compared with 22 juveniles a month in the rest of California combined.

Critics also point out that juveniles held at the Los Angeles County jail serve much harsher time in custody, held up to 23 1/2 hours a day locked in windowless, 4-by-8-foot cells. That confinement exceeds even the time that most state inmates on death row spend behind bars.

Coalition member Daniel Robles, 18, of Boyle Heights recalled how he was transferred from juvenile hall to the jail last year to serve a one-year sentence.

Confined to one of its tiny cells, Robles said he had one blanket and one sheet to cover his steel bunk. "No pillow. No mattress," he said. "At night I froze."

For six months, Robles said, he spent all but a half hour a day locked in his cell.

"I never knew what day it was because I had no clock, no outdoor recreation, no contact visits, no windows," he said.

At the jail, he claimed, he was "treated ... as if I had three strikes on my way to San Quentin."

While declining on the advice of his attorney to discuss the offense that led to his jail sentence, Robles said he was released from custody after seven months.

In response to two recent suicide attempts at the jail, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) today is convening a closed-door meeting of county officials to discuss the facility and how detention conditions for minors being tried as adults can be improved.

Hours after Thursday's protest, Erin Zoda asked a judge to order authorities to transfer her teenage son from the men's jail back to juvenile hall.

The boy, who turned 15 on Sunday, is the youngest of four defendants charged in the February slaying of 61-year-old William Whiteside.

Zoda is accused of participating in the beating of Whiteside and then watching as his older fellow defendants torched the victim's car.

Zoda's mother acknowledged Thursday that her son must be held accountable for any role in the crime, but said his detention during his trial has been extreme.

Since early May, she said, her son has been in lockdown at the juvenile module, unable to have visitors or make telephone calls.

"I understand that they have to discipline" juvenile inmates, she said. "But my God, two months is just insane."

On Mother's Day, Zoda said, she was refused entrance to the jail and the same thing occurred Sunday. "I couldn't even say 'happy birthday,' " she said.

During a hearing before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Steven D. Ogden, Zoda's attorney, Peter Swarth said, "I understand he is charged with a very serious crime. But he has not been convicted."

After the hearing, the judge said he would rule Wednesday on whether Zoda should be removed from the jail. Citing an article about the jail in The Times on Thursday, the judge termed conditions at the facility "pretty close to unconscionable."

Times research librarian Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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